CEO Communications: Moderate cruising altitude rather than rocketing to the moon

Media presence is not the only currency of CEO communications. Day-to-day business calls for constantly weighing opportunities and risks.

History is shaped by leading personalities and corporate history is no exception. In this sense, the company’s top dog plays a major role not only in shaping objective business performance, but also how the company is perceived subjectively. Though this is nothing new, a new sub-discipline within corporate communications has emerged in recent years that is now enjoying very special attention: CEO communications.

Experts are devoting entire publications to topics like customized CEO communications strategies, communications gaffes that CEOs should avoid and what we can learn from CEO communications rock stars. What’s more, these days top executive reputation rankings are routinely published alongside those of companies. The theory is that the CEO is the brand, the embodiment of the company’s reputation, and he or she should serve as the focal point of the company’s communications strategy. So far, so good; no experienced practitioner in our field would call this into question.

Coverage quantity vs. quality

We need to take a closer look, however, at which goals CEO communications should pursue in both the company’s and CEO’s interests. Anyone who limits their thinking here to the pursuit of “faster, higher, farther” clearly underestimates the complexity of the task. In fact, greater media presence – and the higher profile that goes with it – carries risks that need to be considered. If you look at the quality of coverage – for example, Germany’s CEO media presence rankings for 2014 (“CEO Medienpräsenz-Ranking”, pressesprecher 1/2015), which stacks the negative coverage up against the positive coverage – you see a much different picture than if you look at quantity alone. The top four CEOs in qualitative ranking do not even make the top 15 in the purely quantitative rankings. And among the 15 CEOs with the most media coverage, just three are among the 15 best in terms of the overall tone of the coverage.

What conclusions can we draw from this? Effective CEO communications is not about a permanent ascent. If you seek maximum altitude when the sky is clear, you are essentially defining how far you can fall when dark clouds gather on the horizon. Obviously you can and should not escape the need for media presence when the situation calls for it. But in everyday communications a slightly lower cruising altitude is the more prudent flight path – one that keeps the CEO on the media radar but also avoids overexposure.

The right dosage

And herein lies the real challenge of CEO communications: finding the right dosage of activity, the appropriate platforms for exposure, the right frequency along the corporate timeline, and – like the pilot at cruising altitude – keeping a steady eye on the instruments so you can react quickly to changing conditions.

For those who remain unconvinced and want to gear up their CEO communications for a rocket ride to the moon, a recent study by Joseph T. Albert and Hung-Chia Hsu from the University of Wisconsin is worth a look (“Beauty is Wealth: CEO Appearance and Shareholder Value”, 2014). One of its conclusions: “More attractive CEOs are associated with better stock returns around their job announcement dates” as compared to less attractive CEOs.

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